Interviewed by Valerie Waterhouse
Read Paul Pekin’s fiction piece, Milk
Valerie: We get a lot of stories about Alzheimer’s / dementia at FLM. And also a lot of stories about cats. Both are usually Big Red Flags telling us this isn’t going to be our favourite submission–yet your story drew me in, and convinced me to pick it from the hundreds we receive. What’s your secret?
Paul: No secret. Just believe in your story and write the best you can. But, I must admit, this is the first time I got a cat past an editor!
During the editing process, you mentioned: ‘The story isn’t really about Alzheimer’s any more than it is about cats’. What IS it about, then?
Among other things, it’s about appreciating what you have while you have it, something the cat does rather well.
You also said: ‘In my writing I try to seek out the universal rather than the personal, although sometimes the personal is the only way to get there.’ In the past, you have written both fiction and non-fiction for numerous newspapers and magazines. What can fiction do that non-fic/straight autobiography can’t? And vice-versa, obviously?
Nothing goes flat quicker than a non-fiction story that turns out to be made-up. I’m not sure if the opposite holds true. If fiction has an advantage, and I’m not sure it does, maybe that’s where it lies.
The story comes in under 1,000 words—yet deals with some pretty big themes and packs quite an emotional punch. Do you prefer writing short short stories to longer short fiction? Any tips?
Some stories, Milk for instance, just have to be the length they are. But my preference, over the years, is to write a story long enough to allow the reader to settle in and turn some pages. It is difficult to publish stories over 5,000 words, but I truly love writing them.
I know you’re not keen on talking about Alzheimer’s—but is there something you wish most people knew?
Life does not end with a diagnosis. There is much happiness to come. Treasure it.
Is there anything about Alzheimer’s / dementia that you’d like readers of your story to take away?
You can learn a lot from a cat.
Getting back to CATS: the cat in this story is the third character with its own distinct personality. How did you manage to avoid turning the cat into a sentimental cliché?
I have always felt that a writer, when in an animal’s point of view, should not try to give them human thoughts, certainly not words, and maybe not even images. We are in the presence of a different way of thinking. To understand it, we would have to become an animal ourselves. Remember this, and we might escape the cliché.
Do you have a favourite cat story you’d like to recommend to readers of FLM? Mine is Who was to Blame? by Anton Chekhov: the cat’s thought processes, and the narrative perspective, remind me a little of your story (though Chekhov does allow the cat a couple of mental images, a saucer with paws, for one…)
Not familiar with that Chekhov story, will look it up! Favorite cat story? Oh, by far J.F. Power’s Death of a Favorite (Best American Short Stories of the Century; ed. John Updike) which violates all my rules of writing about cats and makes Fritz a most human character!
Heading for the bookshop to order a copy of Death of a Favorite right now. Here’s to herds of future fictional cats! (But writers, please don’t send them all to FLM…)